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Watermen’s Stairs In Wapping

July 31, 2020
by the gentle author

Wapping Old Stairs

I need to keep reminding myself of the river. Rarely a week goes by without some purpose to go down there but, if no such reason occurs, I often take a walk simply to pay my respects to the Thames. Even as you descend from the Highway into Wapping, you sense a change of atmosphere when you enter the former marshlands that remain susceptible to fog and mist on winter mornings. Yet the river does not declare itself at first, on account of the long wall of old warehouses that line the shore, blocking the view of the water from Wapping High St.

The feeling here is like being offstage in a great theatre and walking in the shadowy wing space while the bright lights and main events take place nearby. Fortunately, there are alleys leading between the tall warehouses which deliver you to the waterfront staircases where you may gaze upon the vast spectacle of the Thames, like an interloper in the backstage peeping round the scenery at the action. There is a compelling magnetism drawing you down these dark passages, without ever knowing precisely what you will find, since the water level rises and falls by seven metres every day – you may equally discover waves lapping at the foot of the stairs or you may descend onto an expansive beach.

These were once Watermen’s Stairs, where passengers might get picked up or dropped off, seeking transport across or along the Thames. Just as taxi drivers of contemporary London learn the Knowledge, Watermen once knew the all the names and order of the hundreds of stairs that lined the banks of the Thames, of which only a handful survive today.

Arriving in Wapping by crossing the bridge in Old Gravel Lane, a short detour to the east would take me to Shadwell Stairs but instead I go straight to the Prospect of Whitby where a narrow passage to the right leads to Pelican Stairs. Centuries ago, the Prospect was known as the Pelican, giving its name to the stairs which have retained their name irrespective of the changing identity of the pub. These worn stone steps connect to a slippery wooden stair leading to wide beach at low tide where you may enjoy impressive views towards the Isle of Dogs.

West of here is New Crane Stairs and then, at the side of Wapping Station, another passage leads you to Wapping Dock Stairs. Further down the High St, opposite the entrance to Brewhouse Lane, is a passageway leading to a fiercely-guarded pier, known as King Henry’s Stairs – though John Roque’s map of 1746 labels this as the notorious Execution Dock Stairs. Continue west and round the side of the river police station, you discover Wapping Police Stairs in a strategic state of disrepair and beyond, in the park, is Wapping New Stairs.

It is a curious pilgrimage, but when you visit each of these stairs you are visiting another time – when these were the main entry and exit points into Wapping. The highlight is undoubtedly Wapping Old Stairs with its magnificently weathered stone staircase abutting the Town of Ramsgate and offering magnificent views to Tower Bridge from the beach. If you are walking further towards the Tower, Aldermans’ Stairs is worth venturing at low tide when a fragment of ancient stone causeway is revealed, permitting passengers to embark and disembark from vessels without wading through Thames mud.

Shadwell Stairs

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs at night

View into the Prospect of Whitby from Pelican Stairs

New Crane Stairs

Wapping Dock Stairs

Execution Dock Stairs, now known as King Henry’s Stairs

Entrance to Wapping Police Stairs

Wapping Police Stairs

Metropolitan Police Service Warning: These stairs are unsafe!

Wapping New Stairs with Rotherithe Church in the distance

Light in Wapping High St

Wapping Pier Head

Entrance to Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs

Passageway to Wapping Old Stairs at night

Aldermans’ Stairs, St Katharine’s Way

You may also like to read about

Madge Darby, Historian of Wapping

Whistler in Wapping & Limehouse

The Gentle Author’s Wapping Pub Crawl

Wapping Tavern Tokens

15 Responses leave one →
  1. John Woodman permalink
    July 31, 2020

    Exceptional images, particularly the one looking into the Prospect of Whitby.

  2. July 31, 2020

    Thank you so much Gentle Author for your gentle, inquiring mind and beautiful photographs of these mysterious passages, stairs and the swirling waters of the Thames, as always drawing us inexorably to wonder and dream of times gone by.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 31, 2020

    I have been reading a series of books set in Tudor London which are a great reminder of how important the Thames was as the main transport link between different parts of the City, Westminster and Hampton Court. And of how skilled the boatmen must have been to negotiate all the strong river currents and still arrive at the right set of steps!

  4. July 31, 2020

    Beautiful photos

  5. Greta Kelly permalink
    July 31, 2020

    We were privileged to spend three years living in Wapping. We felt very much at home there as it reminded us of our small home town, Clonakilty, where people greet you in the street, where you known and are greeted by the shopkeepers, the staff at Wapping Station. Where the local coffee shop set down your chosen coffee in front of you without you having to order, and where lots of chat and interaction took place at the “Social Share Table”!
    And to crown it all our small apartment overlooked Shadwell Basin. We explored every nook and cranny of Wapping, the various stairs, the riverside pubs, the parks, the cobbled streets.
    We are back home now but Wapping will always stay with us!
    Thank you!

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 31, 2020

    How I love these images of the Thames. With two centuries of watermen on my family tree I find the history of the river and all the references to the stairs and how people used the river as a means of transport fascinating. My ancestors operated the Horse Ferry at Lambeth for the Archbishop, to whom it then belonged, and also rowed the Archbishop’s barge which would have been a very grand affair. How I wish I could find a picture of it but the closest that I have come is the state barges belonging to the city livery companies. Thank you GA you have inspired me to do some more research into this subject, I do have copies, bought from the Museum of London, of paintings of the Horse Ferry and one includes boys and men in the nip frolicking on a flat barge, could these be my ancestors I wonder ??

  7. Michael Hebbert permalink
    July 31, 2020

    About ten years ago the River Thames Society surveyed the surviving stairs along the tidal Thames and found many leading up to a locked gate. Not nice if you get into difficulties on the river. A recent example was the boarding-up (apparently unauthorised) of Duke Shore Stairs, a historic right of way used by Samuel Pepys on a visit to the porcelain works on Narrow Street, Limehouse,

  8. susan kerslake permalink
    July 31, 2020

    Though I think it is out of print, seek Helen Humphrey’s The Frozen Thames, published in 2007, published by McClellan and Stewart in Canada. From the book: “In its long history. the river Thames has frozen solid forth time. These are the stories of that frozen river.” My favourite is 1809…the field of frozen birds…

  9. Linda Granfield permalink
    July 31, 2020

    Wonderful stage analogy! And the photographs of dark/light at night very much support that vision.

    GA, I know you’ve written about mud-larking along the Thames but these ‘tide in’ photos make me wonder if, when the tide is out, you’ve been a mud-lark–and if so, what fascinating bits of history did you find?!


  10. July 31, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I never tire of the wonderful glimpses you provide into the history of London …

  11. Saba permalink
    July 31, 2020

    These past three essays — the stairs, Shakespeare’s London, and Roman London — are some of the best ever. Today’s entry admits me to Dickens’ London. I never miss a day of reading these wonderful insights.

  12. July 31, 2020

    Your first sentence got my attention. Yes, yes, it is important to keep reminding ourselves of so many things, and I am negligent, even when spare time abounds.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  13. August 1, 2020

    I have enjoyed these pictures very much!! Thank You So Very Much!!???????

  14. Kerry Williams permalink
    August 1, 2020

    This was such an interesting read……………..Kerry, Rockhampton, Qld, Australia

  15. Peter Coxell permalink
    January 23, 2021

    Lovely to read this article and share in those photos which bring back such happy memories. We lived in Wapping during the war years, 1942 on, and went to St Peters London Docks church and school. There was very much a community spirit,sadly lacking these days, and people looked after each other in difficult times. The photo of Wapping Police stairs was a flash back to when my school friend, Phillip Butt and I went out in the police launches with his dad, Sergeant Butt, probably be frowned upon these days! We married in St Peter’s in 1964 and moved away to Bishops Stortford but still kept in contact with our church friends most of whom mow have sadly passed away. However, for the last 4/5 years we have travelled up to London from Bristol where we now live, and on every occasion walk along Wapping High Street from the Tower of London, call in for a drink at the Town if Ramsgate, and walk around Wapping,recalling very vivid memories if our upbringing. In our opinion, in spite of a lot if modernisation particularly the docks which are now yuppie retreats, we don’t think Wapping has changed a lot and get the feeling of a community spirit still existing. It is lovely also to meet up with a couple of old school friends and have lunch, reminiscing over the “good old days”. Sadly, with this horrible pandemic we have been unable to visit for a year or so but look forward to the day when we can return. Wapping, and the Thames will always live on in our memories!

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